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BOOKS ISSUE: 'The Circle' projects Bay Area technology culture into a dystopian near-future

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When a tech company gets too big: Dave Eggers' The Circle

Much like in 1984, it is average citizens who become the key agents of the security state, persuaded by propaganda and skewed visions of the greater good to spy on their neighbors. Or in the case of The Circle — and its cheap, small, wireless, and ubiquitous SeeChange cameras, or the TruYouth tracking chips implanted in children for their protection — the actions of people in every corner of the world.

Yet the real power and insights in this compelling work of fiction isn't with its portrayal of the grand endgame, as creepy as that all might be (and I won't even get into a couple of the chilling plot twists and scenes that come toward the end of the book). What intrigued me most was its reflection of the attitudes and motivations that are so prevalent in the tech world today, as we see all around us, and the perils in following through these incubating ideas to their logical ends.

Mayor Ed Lee and his main financial benefactor, venture capitalist Ron Conway, the libertarian-leaning investor in a huge cross-section of local high-tech companies (see "The Plutocrat," 11/27/12), regularly present technology as the panacea for all that ails this complex, multi-faceted city.

"Dispution" is the main stated goal of this industry, whether it be Airbnb's defiance of local housing, zoning, and tax laws to allow people to monetize their apartments; Lyft and Uber creating unregulated taxi services that threaten San Francisco's long-developed taxi system; or the San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology & Innovation (sf.citi) pushing tech-based public-private partnerships "to find new solutions to historic problems facing San Francisco."

In fact, a campaign video that sf.citi created during the mayor's race two years ago was eerily similar to the thoughts Mae had one day while away from the safe and sanitized cocoon of the Circle campus: "Walking through San Francisco, or Oakland, or San Jose, or any city, really, seemed more and more like a Third World experience, with unnecessary filth, and unnecessary strife and unnecessary errors and inefficiencies — on any city block, a thousand problems correctible through simple enough algorithms and the application of available technology and willing members of the digital community."

 

CLOSING THE CIRCLE

Eggers writes from a place of love for San Francisco, the city we watched him adopt through his breakout novel, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2001). He then founded the McSweeney's publishing house and the 826 Valencia writing lab, mentoring new generations of young writers and encouraging our love affair with the printed word.

I got to know Eggers at events and coffee shops in our Mission District neighborhood, and he was generous with his time and advice as I was writing my own book, The Tribes of Burning Man (2010). Eggers spanned the first dot-com boom and the current one, his award-winning books are critically acclaimed for their penetrating insights into what makes people tick, and so his observations about the quirks and pitfalls of techie culture here in the Bay Area can't be easily dismissed.

The tech industry does a lot of good and important work, but there are inherent dangers in the marriage of powerful technologies to the power-hungry capitalists who finance their ventures. And the mediating factor is the multitudes who use the technologies and what their expectations are. It is a triad reflected in a parable-like story toward the end of the book when a shark, an octopus, and a school of sea horses are put into the same tank (spoiler alert: the shark wins).

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